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Legal Research

Comprehensive guide to answer legal research questions.

Primary Sources

If secondary sources explain the law, what are primary sources? Primary sources are the laws and rules that we follow. Some examples are:

Types of Secondary Sources

What is a secondary source? A secondary source is a commentary about the law, but it is NOT the law. A secondary source explains the law.

Why use secondary sources?

  • Great starting point for researching an unfamiliar area
  • Explanation of complex concepts and issues
  • Provides citations to primary authority such as case law, statutes, rules and regulations.

What are the types of secondary sources?

Legal Dictionaries – Defines legal terminology.  A popular one is Black’s Law Dictionary found in the Law Library. Think of it as Merriam Webster, but for legal terms.

Treatises – A treatise is a resource that provides in-depth treatment of a specific area of law.  A treatise title may only be one volume or it can include several volumes.  A Hornbook is a type of treatise that is very popular.  Hornbooks are always one volume and published by West.  Fun fact: Hornbook covers used to be made from a ram horn skin!

Legal Encyclopedias – Just like other encyclopedias, legal encyclopedias provide brief overviews of particular legal topics. They are arranged alphabetically by topic and have an index.  They can also be divided into national and state specific legal encyclopedias depending on the jurisdiction of your legal topic.

National Legal Encyclopedias - These legal encyclopedias give a broad overview of a national legal topic. Examples are Corpus Juris Secondum (C.J.S.) and American Jurisprudence (Am. Jur.).

State Specific Legal Encyclopedias - These legal encyclopedias only discuss state specific legal topics. The state specific legal encyclopedia for Florida is Florida Jurisprudence (Fla.Jur.). If you are researching Florida law, this is a great place to start! Keep in mind that not all states have a state specific legal encyclopedia. Here is a current list: California, Colorado, Florida Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia.

Legal Periodicals – Law reviews and legal journals provide articles on specific points of law.  Use these to understand a concept and see related secondary and primary sources.

American Law Reports (A.L.R.) Federal and International – This secondary source gives an overview of a legal topic like a legal encyclopedia, but also provides an applicable law review article. There are three types of American Law Reports, A.L.R. for national issues, Federal and International for legal issues in those areas. A.L.R. is a great place to start your research no matter what jurisdiction. 

Restatements of the Law – These scholarly works restate existing common law and statutes on substantive legal topics.  These commentaries are not the law, but many states have found these commentaries so comprehensive that they have adopted the Restatements and made them law in their state.